Review: Dersu Uzala

[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]

Dersu Uzala is about a man who’s getting old and can’t live as he always has, who’s facing life’s end. As a forebodingly “late” film by an aging director, it might also be about Kurosawa himself. Kurosawa was born in 1910, which happens to be the first date we see, superimposed over an iridescent, lacelike pattern of autumn trees, in Dersu Uzala. The matched dates may or may not be coincidental, but the interwoven allusions to different kinds of birth—of a man, a film, a memory, and even of a portentous little eddy of civilization that rustles into life in the next image of the movie—are all very much part of this undespairingly contemplative tale of friendship whose enclosing images are that of birthplace and gravesite. There is an old man in the film—the Chinese whose wife was stolen by his brother some twenty years ago—who we think must be nearing the end of his life, but who manages to see things that we don’t and perhaps can’t see. “He’s far from here,” Dersu (Maxim Munzuk) says when Arseniev (Yuri Solomin) suggests inviting the old man over to enjoy the warmth of their fire; “he sees his house, his garden all in blossom.” This is more than just memory, though. Seeing what “isn’t there” is a way to talk about vision in terms of creating metaphors, and that becomes one of Kurosawa’s recurring motifs.

When Arseniev and his men, early in the film, stop to camp for the night in a slightly inhospitable mountain ravine, Arseniev muses on the changing moods and faces of the land itself, lending a metaphorical cast to the very terrain—which he describes as a version of Walpurgis Night. For Dersu, a supernatural world is always in view. He sits by a river at one point, singing to the members of his family (who all died of smallpox at some time in the past); he has dreamed they are on the far bank, cold and hungry. Arseniev enters the scene and sits down by Dersu’s fire, becoming a silhouette against its brightness. The light cast on Dersu underscores his unique powers of perception into some offscreen region beyond the physical world, while the contrasting darkness of Arseniev’s outlined form suggests Arseniev is cut off from that region. Kurosawa isn’t doing anything heavy or blatant with light and shadow, but the sense of a fluctuating borderline between what we can see and what we can’t see is unobtrusively implied by their continual interplay. One of the most striking shots in the film occurs when Arseniev and Dersu meet up out in the forest after being separated for five years. When they are still a good distance apart, there is a deep-focus glance along a corridor of light that stretches through the tangle of fog-shrouded trees, creating an almost supernatural link between the two men, a visual extension of their spiritual bond. The nearly religious glow of the light in the shot, the deep-focus unity of the mise-en-scène, both serve to stylistically underscore the importance of the ineffable, and at times the magical, in Dersu Uzala.

It is a film of potential and possibility, with things always happening just beyond the periphery of our vision and the frame’s bounds, implied actions and people we might never see, or see only after following in their traces through miles of concealing Siberian wilderness—Chinese bandits, an abandoned hut Dersu said would be there, an awesomely desolate lake at the seeming edge of the world, elusive tigers, ancient wanderers…. But towards the end of the film, Dersu’s sight begins to fail him. When he can no longer live in the forest, he goes to the city with Arseniev where he endures, briefly, the confines of “civilized” life. Walls suddenly intrude on the framespace, and Dersu finds it impossible to live within them. Munzuk’s onscreen motions, throughout the film, seem to take into account the frame’s edges (he’s always looking out past them, or running just to where the frame ends), and so imply a world beyond that physical, cinematic “wall.” In a midfilm scene where Dersu announces he’ll be parting with Arseniev for the winter, Dersu stares into the fire of a family of natives who have taken them in for the night. “I’ll start out tomorrow,” he begins, then outlines his envisioned trek back into the mountains to hunt sable for the winter. Although you can’t help but feel that a whole way of life is being described, the tone seems to be remembrance rather than anticipation. For a brief moment, Arseniev and his two men seem to “see” as Dersu does. All of them look into the space before them and sense something beyond normal vision. For Dersu, it is age and death catching up. As he described the spiritual displacement of the old Chinese, so Dersu is already “far from here.”

Dersu Uzala depicts a warm commemoration of one man by another, but it also concerns taking stock of personal destiny as mortal limitations loom in the near future. Arseniev, in one scene, drops from exhaustion out in the frozen marsh where he and Dersu have been stranded. His voiceover narration notes that “as the wind howled above us, I sank into darkness,” while behind him the sun also disappears at the edge of the horizon. Somehow, this is a terrifying image. Sinking into darkness is what the film is about. The next thing that happens is that the screen too goes black, as “night” extends into the very heart and process of Kurosawa’s world.

DERSU UZALA
Direction: Akira Kurosawa. Screenplay: Akira Kurosawa and Yuri Nagibin, after a novel by Vladimir Arseniev. Cinematography: Asakazu Nakai, Yuri Gantman, Fyodor Dobronravov. Art direction: Y. Raksha. Music: Isaac Schwartz.
The players: Maxim Munzuk, Yuri Solomin.

© 1978 Rick Hermann

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.